Women priests for the jet age

Courtesy : The Times of India, July 1, 2002.


Pune / Varanasi / Thiruvananthapuram: The pantheon of the Hindu deities may have grown in numbers over the centuries, electric lamps may have replaced oil lamps and Vedic chants may have given way to filmi bhajans, but one element has weathered the changing times — the male priest.

Not anymore.

Because women priests are turning the age-old tradition on its head. In the very heartland of Maharashtra’s orthodox brahminical order, Pune-based Shankar Seva Samiti (SSS), since its inception in 1976, has trained, through its one-year course, over 7,000 women priests from all castes.

Another Pune-based organisation, the Jnana Prabodhini (JP), has blended tradition with modernity in its three-month course, which was started in 1990. So far, over 800 people, half of whom are women, have completed the course. Apart from giving training, Prabodhini’s core team of 17 male and eight female priests also regularly performs all rituals.

In Kerala — God’s own country — till a few years ago, anything related to Vedic hymns and sacred ceremonies was considered the domain of the Namboodiris and the Pottis — the two classes of the brahminical order. But, over the past few years, 37 non-brahmin women have become priests, thanks to the efforts of Gurupadam Institute of Kodungallur in Thrissur district.

The revolution is taking roots in Varanasi as well, where students of the Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya are being trained in priesthood.

Dressed in yellow and wearing janeu (sacred thread), a group of young girls are performing havan and chanting mantras in chaste Sanskrit. The atmosphere is charged with spiritual fervour, reminiscent of the ashrams of yore.

This unique centre of learning has produced a number of Sanskrit scholars and karmakandi women pundits. Presently, 70 students from different parts of the country are on its rolls, preparing for degrees from prathama to acharya.

And all the efforts seem to bearing fruit as a perceptible change in attitude is visible. In Pune, for example, no eyebrows are raised when a woman priest conducts marriages, pujas or even a shradh. In fact, there is a growing preference for women priests for conducting these ceremonies.

As a client put it, ‘‘Women priests do not take short cuts while performing rituals.’’ Suniti Gadgil, a JP team member, performs around 15 shradh ceremonies every month besides puja and sacred thread ceremonies.

Says she, ‘‘Earlier, I used to do only other rituals. But I decided to do the shradh ceremony only after no priest was available to do the shradh of my mother.’’

Not only are women being trained in priesthood in large numbers, the long-lost tradition of performing the sacred thread ceremony for girls to give them the right to perform all religious rituals in the family has also been evolved.